With travel restrictions looming back in March, I wrote that my Ohio plans might be canceled. As a back-up plan, I chose the Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring Ring Road and floated the idea among my usual cycling friends.
Now we find ourselves in June, going on July, and the Ohio trip is definitely out. I started looking more carefully into the Tsukuba situation, and the first speed bump I encountered as the lack of onsen. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a long soak in a hot tub — even in the summer — at the end of a long ride, and a nice onsen will offer that as well as a fantastic meal.
I looked again at the official site, and soon arrived upon Plan B: the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course and the Kitaura Area Circuit Course are both near the town of Itago, and I soon located several likely onsen in Itago to serve as a base for both rides. So the new schedule will be to drive up as early as possible Sunday morning and cycle the shorter Kitaura route. Monday will be spent circling Kasumigaura, and we’ll return to Tokyo on Tuesday.
At Nana’s urging, and with her help, we’ve booked an onsen in Itako, Ibaragi, at the end of July, and a large van to carry both bicycles and passengers. The Halfakid and Tomo are in, so it will be three bikes and five or six people in the van.
Here’s where the disaster part comes in
I knew that I had a route map for the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course, but I didn’t have one for the Kitaura Area Circuit Course. The course maps available from the site are more descriptive than they are effective route guides.
But I knew that the Japanese version of the site included full route maps served by Yahoo’s excellent LatLongLab. So I started looking around in Japanese.
And I looked.
And I looked …
At last I remembered that I’d posted the LatLongLab routes previously, so I went back to that original post to see if it would offer me any clues. But when I clicked on that route … Disaster:
LatLongLab is closed as of 31 March 2020. All the data and images have been deleted.
A huge blow, and a small consolation
The loss of LatLongLab is a huge blow to the cycling community in Japan. The organized rides I’ve participated in — Tour de Tohoku, Bike Tokyo — have used this, and I’ve taken advantage of a number of other routes that cyclists have posted there. The small consolation for Kasumigaura is that both routes are very straightforward: just keep the lake on the left (or on the right, if going around clockwise).
It’s a good thing I’m checking now, a month before the event. I have plenty of time to plot out the routes and load them into the GPS.
I’ve been planning a ride with friends this summer in Ohio, but I haven’t booked anything yet given the current state of travel and restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. In case things fall through, I’d like to have a back-up plan.
The Ring-Ring Road includes several courses, most originating from Tsuchiura, a small city in Ibaraki Prefecture about 80km from Tokyo. Given the proximity I thought it would be possible to spend a day biking up to the starting point. But when I reviewed the route on Google Street View, it was clear it would be some very unsavory cycling: lots of traffic and very little scenery (but at least mostly flat). When I spoke with coworkers yesterday about the idea, one said she was from the area. Her cousin had ridden from Tokyo up to Ibaraki several years ago, and the experience was so bad he decided to leave his bike there and take a train home. (He collected the bike later by car.)
So if we go this route (if my friends are interested in joining, that is), the most likely course of action would be to rent a car to carry our bikes up to Tsuchiura. Depending on the size of the entourage this time, some people may need to go by train.
This 44km course runs on a former railway right-of-way, so it’s flat and straight through rice fields. Given the length and the lack of attractions at the terminus, we’d ride it round-trip in one day to bring us back to our starting point in Tsuchiura.
Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course
The lake circuit course is 127km of small roads and cycle paths around Japan’s second-largest lake. The circuit winds around a bit more than the railroad course, but it’s just about as flat. As with Biwako (Japan’s largest lake and the third of the three national cycle routes), the directions are easy: just keep the lake to your left and you’re good. (When the Three Gaijin-teers did Biwako back in 2014, we went clockwise around so we kept the lake to our right. But the principle is the same.)
A portion of the Lake Kasumigaura Circuit Course features in this month’s episode of Cycle Around Japan, an NHK series.
For the moment, the likelihood of us going on this route depends on the coronoavirus situation (at least as much as we’ll know if it by mid-April) and the availability of onsen at Tsuchiura. But I’m thinking one day to drive up with the bikes. Day 2 would be the ride around the lake, and Day 3 the shorter railroad route. We’d have the option of returning home at the end of Day 3, or staying another night at the spa (assuming we find one).
I’ll also see if Fearless Leader Joe and Sanborn would like to come along. Ol’ Paint’s restoration should be complete by then, insh’allah, so I can offer one of them a ride. And there are rental bikes available at Tsuchiura. If FLJ and the Halfakid decide these courses are too tame, then they might like to take a day to follow in Michael’s tracks and cycle up Mt Tsukuba.
Otarumi Touge (Pass) is a popular cyclists’ destination near Mt. Takao at the border of Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture. Naturally, because it’s a mountain pass, getting there involves a bit of climbing. The Halfakid and I had attempted the route last November, but we lost an hour to a mechanical and I was on a tight deadline (dinner with friends that evening), so we turned back after reaching the foot of Mt. Takao.
This time, with the Kid on a new bike and me with no deadline (and fully charged lights), I was more confident of our ability to finish — particularly if the Halfakid didn’t flat along the route!
I set out at 7:30 to take full advantage of the daylight, and met the Kid at his place at 8. From there’s it’s a bit of a run in traffic down to the Tama River, but it’s largely downhill. It wasn’t long before we were cruising up the Tama cycling path. We passed a group of three in matching jerseys for a Setagaya cycling club, and before we knew it we were acting as their pacesetters — at least until the Halfakid took a wrong turning and I slowed my pace to wait for him to catch up again.
Just before crossing over the Tama River to continue our ride towards Mt. Takao, we stopped at a quiet park and had one of Nana’s famous onigiri.
Once over the bridge, we joined up the Asa River cycling course and were on the lookout for the wrong turning we’d made on our first outing in November. I nearly went the wrong way once again, but the Halfakid reeled me in and we were soon on our way.
As we’d only come this way once before, we were still learning the ins and outs of the Asa River course. Is it better to take that cycling path although it’s gravel, or stay on this narrow road against the traffic with broken pavement? Should we cross this bridge in the road or on the sidewalk? There were a couple of times I had to apologize to the Kid for sudden maneuvers made without hand signals.
The final stretch of cycling path into Takao is bumpy, broken and full of pedestrians out for a weekend stroll in the beautiful weather. We chanced across a local fire department staging a bonfire surmounted by a daruma — that place was lit! Not long after that we were climbing up from the path and back into traffic. But it’s not far from the end of the path into Takao proper.
Once in Takao, we stopped at a convenience store we’d found in November that has picnic benches and parking for bicycles. We bought hot coffee and bottled water, and enjoyed some of Nana’s famous onigiri before our assault on the mountain. This time for the first time, she’d made onigiri with umeboshi, which is a favorite of the Kid.
Onwards! I had my Garmin plotting the course (which was basically: follow the road), but it doesn’t show how much further to go. From this point we were climbing for 6km up to the pass. The overall grade is not steep — a 5% average — but it just keeps going up, up and up! Strava lists the climb as a Category 3, with two segments: 7.62km at 3%, or just the last 3.61km at 5%. I was sure I could do it — it’s much more gradual than the run-up to the pass between Nara and Osaka — but perhaps not all at one gulp. I made it about halfway up before taking my first break and another half kilometer or more before the next break. After each stop, though, I mounted the bike and continued pedaling.
Upwards! The road didn’t exactly switch back, but it wended its way next to a small stream upwards to the pass, first in the chilly shadow of the mountain, then in the bright warm sunshine. We watched enviously as cyclists descended in the opposite direction, or occasionally passed us on the way up towards the pass. I should point out here that the Halfakid was going strong. Despite his much higher gearing, he could have stormed past me to the top at any point without having to stop for a break.
I took my final brief break at a narrow shoulder that would turn out to be within 50m of the goal. If only I’d continued around that last corner I’d have seen it was the end! But no matter — we made it. As we flashed under the sign marking the pass, I asked the Halfakid if it said what I thought. He replied that he wasn’t familiar with the kanji, but it said “mountain up-down.” (峠) “That will be touge: pass,” I replied, making a climbing and then descending motion with my hand.
Naturally, we rested at the top. There was a ramen restaurant with soft cream, but neither of us was hungry enough for a full meal at that point. We had water and more hot coffee, and I had a Snickers bar. We wandered around a bit and took photos.
We couldn’t dawdle too long, though. We knew that we’d only come half way, and needed to get back home again. We mounted up. Somehow, the trip from the pass back to Takao went much faster, and the only break I took was when I’d left the Halfakid so far behind that I couldn’t see him anymore. (This turned out to be the last time that this was true on this particular ride.) When we got back to Takaosanguchi, we stopped for a quick photo at the entrance to the cable car up the mountain.
We stopped at the same convenience store again and stocked up on food, and then worked our way through the traffic back to the Asa River cycling course.
Naturally, on the way home, we were a bit more knackered. And yet when we came to straight, smooth cycling path, the Halfakid rocketed past me and on ahead. Now that he has his new bike, he has reserves beyond what I’m able to match. I didn’t try to hold him back: it’s good if he can stretch his thighs and calves knowing that I’ll catch up with him when he stops for a break at a turning point.
We crossed the Tama River in the homeward direction and stopped to eat all the goodies we’d bought at the convenience store in Takao. Then we rejoined the Tama cycling path: flat and straight as an arrow back towards home. It wasn’t too long before we came to the park we’d first stopped at in the morning, on our way to the Tama River.
From there we were retracing our path of the morning, except what was downhill then was uphill for us. Again, I think the Halfakid was holding a lot in reserve, but I was doing my best with my worn-out thighs. My only hope of staying ahead was via trickery, which I apparently employed via lack of hand signals as I sped through a right turn intersection on a yellow and left the Halfakid waiting for another cycle of the lights.
All good things must come to an end, including 100km-plus rides featuring a mountain pass at the midway point. I left the Halfakid at his apartment and messaged Nana I was on my way home. I was racing the Garmin’s battery, which was over the 8-hour mark at this point, while at the same time nursing my exhausted thighs. I alternated between coasting along, taking things easy, and thinking, “Hey, I got this!” and pushing the pedals to the metal.
(I’m not sure why the mountain profile isn’t symmetrical — we came back the same way we went up!)
We’ll definitely come back here. There’s a loop course which, instead of turning around at the pass, continues on into Kanagawa Prefecture and turns south before looping back towards the same bridge which takes us over the Tama River. It adds about 20km to the overall route, so we’ll save it for a bright, hot day a bit later in the year when the sun is hanging in the sky a couple of more hours.
Mike Broadwith has posted the GPS files for his record-breaking lejog ride on Strava. The results show that in addition to the new Land’s End to John o’ Groats record, Mike also posted a 24-hour record and took several Kings of the Mountain titles along the way.
I’m wondering if we can avoid some of those climbs in exchange for a slightly longer way round.
Ride along Brighton seafront (there’s a cycle lane) as far as the marina. Continue straight through the marina leaving Asda on your left. At the end cross the bridge over the lock and turn right towards the sea wall. Take the path behind the chandler’s inland towards the undercliff path, then swing right and follow the path west. This will take you on a flat traffic-free path by the sea all the way to Rottingdean, about 3 miles or so.
Unfortunately you then have to rejoin the main road, but it helps make the most of Brighton.
I had two years of French in junior high school, from an American teacher whose accent was indubitably far from formidable.
Since that time, I’ve had a year of college German, and then more than 25 years of immersion in Japanese.
Of French and German, all I can say is that when I attempt to speak either, I’ll be back in Japanese before three words are out of my mouth. A native once famously told me that I spoke French worse than his (Japanese) girlfriend. (Which, in general, is really saying a lot … )
From what I’ve heard of my companions on the trip, though, I may be the bee’s knees when it comes to polly vous …